Tobias Dantzig, Number: The Language of Science (Mathematicians vs. Philosophers)

Between the philosophers’ attitude towards the issue of reality and that of the mathematician there is this essential difference: for the philosopher the issue is paramount; the mathematician’s love for reality is purely platonic.

The mathematician is only too willing to admit that he is dealing exclusively with acts of the mind. To be sure, he is aware that the ingenious artifices which form his stock in trade had their genesis in the sense impressions which he identifies with crude reality, and he is not surprised to find that at times these artifices fit quite neatly the reality in which they were born. But this neatness the mathematician refuses to recognize as a criterion of his achievement: the value of the beings which spring from his creative imagination shall not be measured by the scope of their application to physical reality. No! Mathematical achievement shall be measured by standards which are peculiar to mathematics. These standards are independent of the crude reality of our senses. They are: freedom from logical contradictions, the generality of the laws governing the created form, the kinship which exists between this new form and those that have preceded it.

The mathematician may be compared to a designer of garments, who is utterly oblivious of the creatures whom his garments may fit. To be sure, his art originated in the necessity for clothing such creatures, but this was long ago; to this day a shape will occasionally appear which will fit into the garment as if the garment had been made for it. Then there is no end of surprise and of delight!


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